In the city of Capernaum (Matthew 17:24) a man approaches Peter regarding Jesus' taxes he owes to the temple. Paid in support of Jerusalem's house of worship, this annual amount (based on Exodus 30:13) of a half-shekel was required of all Jewish males over the age of twenty. Peter hastily confirms that his master does pay such a fee then journeys to Christ's house. Before he can report what happened, Jesus gives him an analogy (Matthew 17:25 - 26) that technically he (and his disciples like Peter) were not obliged to pay taxes to the temple. Nevertheless, he acquiesces to the requirement and performs a miracle whereby both his and Peter's fee is paid.
The Pharisees, only a few days before the crucifixion, carry out an ingenious plan to ensnare Jesus in his own words while he is in Jerusalem (Mark 12:13 - 17, Matthew 22:15 - 22, Luke 20:20 - 26). They first gather several students as well as those who support the ruling dynasty of Herod (the Herodians). They then send them to question him regarding the Roman taxes everyone hates to pay. The question they are to pose is designed so that any answer (they thought) would offer grounds to accuse him.
". . . Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" (Matthew 22:17, NIV)
If Jesus answered "yes" to the question regarding Roman taxes the Pharisees' disciples would be there to hear it as witnesses. The answer would be used to accuse him of being a traitor to the Jews and refute the idea he was their true King (Matthew 21:5, 27:11, John 18:37, etc.). If he answered "no" the Herodians would be witnesses to accuse him of treason against the Emperor. Christ, however, knowing their hearts, uses a simple coin to justify paying taxes without incriminating himself.
They brought him a denarius (a common Roman coin), and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" "Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's (e.g. pay your taxes to him), and to God what is God's (Matthew 22:19 - 21, NIV)
Jesus' answer asserts that the Romans, though a hated foreign power occupying the country, had a right to receive taxes to pay for their governance. Note also that in his answer his mentions owing Caesar before God. This was likely a reference to the reality that human governments make sure they are the first to extract what is owed them before a person can give to God.
What did Paul teach?
What did the Apostle Paul teach about paying taxes? Writing during the reign of Emperor Nero (under whom he would ultimately be put to death), he informs Christians in Rome that it is God's will that they pay what is owed and submit to those who govern.
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities (the Roman Empire at the time), for there is no authority except that which God has established . . . Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. THIS IS ALSO WHY YOU PAY TAXES, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing (Romans 13:1, 5 - 6, NIV).
God has and will continue to allow humans to rule over other humans. Paul clearly teaches that Christians, who are separate spiritually from the world (see John 15:19, 17:14 - 16), nevertheless live in it and benefit from its governments. It is therefore reasonable that they (and anyone else) should remit taxes to support the institutions that provide services they use.
Christians are not bound by God to obey any government demand or law that requires them to sin against him (e.g. like Nebuchadnezzar demanding Daniel's friends commit idolatry - Daniel 3). Taxes, however, though disliked and sometimes used dishonestly, are not against his will and should be paid. Believers can take comfort in knowing that Jesus will soon return to establish God's righteous and fair rule over the earth.
Interesting Facts and Quotes
Publicans (tax collectors) were some of the most hated people, with the Pharisees considered them greater sinners than adulterers (Luke 18:11)! Christ, however, not only befriended such people but also often ate meals with them (Matthew 9:10 - 11, Luke 19:2 - 10). He even chooses a well known custom's collector named Matthew (Levi) to be one of his twelve disciples (Matthew 10:3).
Many New Testament tax collectors were often quite wealthy, but not because of any salary paid to them by the Roman Empire. They grew rich by using their authority to extort the people (see Luke 3:12 - 13, 19:7 - 8).
God used Roman tax policy to fulfill a 700-year old prophecy regarding the time and location of where his Son would be born (Daniel 9:24 - 25, Micah 5:2)! See our article on why Christ was born in Bethlehem for more information.
What accusation did religious leaders offer Pontius Pilate as to why they brought Jesus to him for punishment? They falsely accused Christ of teaching that taxes (tribute) should not be paid to the Roman Empire (Luke 23:1 - 2)!